Your Life As Story: Thinking About Memoir in the High Desert

August 27, 2008
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Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton

Your Life As Story: Thinking About Memoir in the High Desert

by Lisa Dale Norton

September 2008

". . . we writers must be willing to bring more to the unraveling of personal experience than just a recitation of the events . . ."
—NORTON

I spent the past weekend in the high desert of northern New Mexico outside Taos with a small group of writers exploring the complexities of structure in memoir. We discussed dual themes, parallel storylines, the hero’s journey and the use of backstory in the creation of a dramatic arc.

 One of the ideas that kept coming up, and which we kicked around a lot in our discussions, was the idea that in contemporary memoir we writers must be willing to bring more to the unraveling of personal experience than just a recitation of the events themselves. We must be willing to seek some larger theme that parallels the personal journey and then to find a way that is compelling to readers to blend the two.

But how do you do this, and what might that parallel story be?

"Draw together with like-minded writers and ask the hard questions strong narrative nonfiction demands."
NORTON

There are no simple answers to these questions, no pat solutions that will fit all projects, only a willingness to seek individual solutions, try a variety of approaches, and make mistakes.

One student was layering the story of her personal awakening as a woman with information about the feminine throughout history. But what structure would be right for bringing these two storylines together? How could she keep the memoir from sounding like part personal tale and part research paper.

What she finally came up with, by the end of the weekend, and after much discussion with other writers at the retreat was to divide her personal awakening into three periods in her life and then to imbue those periods with key insights that came to her from the research she had read. The entire work of narrative nonfiction would be written in first person and in the author’s everyday voice.

Certainly, there is much work ahead for this writer, but these kinds of key decisions can make all the difference when approaching a complicated work of memoir. I encourage you to create communities where you, too, can engage in these kinds of fruitful craft conversations. Draw together with like-minded writers and ask the hard questions strong narrative nonfiction demands.

About
Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton's new book about memoir, SHIMMERING IMAGES: A HANDY LITTLE GUIDE TO WRITING MEMOIR, will be released by St. Martin 's Press in Spring '08. She is the author of Hawk Flies Above: Journey to the Heart of the Sand hills (Picador USA/St. Martin 's Press), a work combining memoir and nature writing. Lisa teaches for the UCLA Writers' Extension Program and speaks nationally on the power of story and the process of writing your own. She lives in Santa Fe. www.lisadalenorton.com

 

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